Off the Beaten Path in Laos: The Bolaven Plateau

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I’m at a tiny gas station in the Bolaven Plateau of Southern Laos, trying to explain to the woman how much of the magenta liquid I need.  I point to my nearly-empty fuel gauge; she hands me the hose to hold while she cranks the manual pump.

And then I have to figure out how much I owe her.  Neither of us speaks more than two words of the other’s language, and nodding and smiling doesn’t get you far when dealing with numbers.

I pull out my iPhone and pull up the calculator app.  Many vendors in Southeast Asia carry calculators to show prices to tourists, but there’s no way this woman sees many tourists.  I keep typing numbers; she shakes her head.

I hand her the iPhone.  She hesitantly presses a button and her face lights up as the screen fills with the numbers she chose.

Here I am, in remote Laos, teaching a local woman how to use an iPhone.  Our lives couldn’t be more different, yet here we were, together, marveling over the handiwork of Steve Jobs.

Most backpackers who visit Laos take the well-trod route from Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, then promptly leave the country.  While I definitely plan on taking that route at some point, there was a region I wanted to visit more: Southern Laos.

Southern Laos has far fewer tourists than the north, and feels far off the beaten path. Running through this region is the Bolaven Plateau, home to coffee plantations, waterfalls, homes on stilts, and some of the friendliest kids you’ll ever meet.

To get to Southern Laos from Bangkok, I took an overnight train to Ubon Ratchathani in Isan, Thailand’s northeastern region.  From Ubon, it was a two-hour bus ride and border crossing to Pakse, the largest city in Southern Laos.

In Pakse, I rented a motorbike and planned a two-day ride through the Bolaven Plateau.  From the moment I hopped on that bike, I felt amazing – cruising down the dirt paths, bouncing through the occasional pothole, my long hair flying wild behind me.

And yes, I was covered in a fine paste of red dirt and sunscreen, and the occasional bug hit me in the face, but I didn’t care – there’s nothing like the feeling of riding through mostly untraveled territory.  I noticed fewer than five foreigners in two days, and I was the only solo woman.

Everywhere I rode, children would wave and yell, “Hello!”  I drove past a group of schoolchildren and they started jumping around and pointing in excitement.  I felt like a celebrity!

Not far from Tat Lo, these adorable little boys took me on a hike around their village!

You can ride from Pakse to Tat Lo in about two and a half hours, but it’s worth it if you go slower, explore the region, and stop along the way. Take the whole day, then spend the night in Tat Lo and come back to Pakse the next day.  It’s a perfect itinerary.

Tat Lo is one of the more famous waterfalls in Southern Laos, and a tiny town has sprung up around it.  Most people arrive by bus, which is why I saw few other foreigners on the road.

Another reason to make this journey?  It’s cheap.  A restaurant meal seldom costs more than $1, a large Beerlao costs around $0.80, and my bungalow with a balcony and view of the river cost $4.

Personally, I think Tat Lo has a lot of potential to become a major backpacking destination.  Once they get WiFi and put in some Western toilets, that is!  Between the beautiful location and the burgeoning scene, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes more developed and the backpacker buses arrive.

Translation: as I said about Koh Lanta, as I said about Railay, GO NOW.  Go to Tat Lo now, go by motorbike, and see it for the peaceful hamlet that it is.  Don’t wait until the road is filled with hundreds of falang like in Pai.  Can you imagine?!

It’s not too late to enjoy solitude on a road that sees so few foreign visitors.  Go, go now, and enjoy a truly magical place while you can.

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18 thoughts on “Off the Beaten Path in Laos: The Bolaven Plateau”

  1. gah! i wanna go! two things are stopping me.

    1. ill be in bangkok in late jan for a month before ill get to do ANY kind of travel
    2. i cant drive (no license of any kind).

    dang you’re lucky to be that far down in Laos. Any reservations about the general area and whatnot (what with all the militant stuff in all regions)?

    Maybe ill see you on the road in the near future!


    1. Honestly, Rick, nobody cares about a license…nobody checked! I know my friend Matt had some problems in Bali, but I’ve never been stopped on my bike in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia.

      My one reservation about Southern Laos is that EVERYTHING IS SO SLOW. And everyone. A bit too chilled out for my taste. But I enjoyed it.

  2. Hi Kate! Loved the article and pictures and I love that thanks to Twitter and blogging I get the chance to see these places that i’d love to visit during my travels. Something about meeting people who’s most technologically advanced equipment is a 2stroke engine really appeals to me for sure!

    I do wonder though, and like you say in your post “it’s only a matter of time before it becomes more developed and the backpacker buses arrive”, do you think there might be an element in what you (And all of us who blog and share with anyone who will listen) are doing that will be the cause of that. Do these people need or want the attention? I don’t know, it’s not for me to say, and I can’t at all say they don’t because then i’d feel like a hypocrite for visiting if/when I do, BUT, it is a valid point.

    Just read your post about Lanta too. I went this year and loved it (Spent more time in Lanta than any other place!), but only around Sala Dan! Next time I shall explore!

    1. Hi, Michael —

      It’s a complicated situation. Some places, like Koh Lanta, are fully equipped for tourism and need more of it. Some places, like Tat Lo, are just starting to grow into tourism.

      I’ve also said “don’t go” about certain places — Koh Phi Phi in particular. That island, though a lot of fun, is sadly a lost cause by now.

  3. Looks amazing. Is this the place that you tweeted about that you weren’t sure would stay standing? It is such a dilemma when you think about it. I kind of feel like no matter where you are, Paris, Rome, and maybe even Koh Phi Phi (even though I have never been), the authentic side is there somewhere, it just has to be harvested. I mean, the locals still have to eat and play somewhere themselves, right?

  4. I’m not sure how, but I missed this when you posted it! I love your off-the-beaten-path stories, and this one especially. It looks gorgeous, in that wild, natural, rural sort of way. I can definitely understand that feeling of freedom you said you felt on your motorbike. Glad you’re enjoying your time in Laos!

  5. I just left the Bolaven Plateau about a week ago and it was by far a highlight of my trip. Unfortunately, my first attempt at driving a motorbike ended in a small crash so I hopped on the back of someone else’s bike and he just wanted to do the day trip. I hope I can conquer my fear of driving and make it back there and around the loop from Tha Khaek before it’s too late and the kids get used to tourists and stop waving like we’re important!

  6. Hey Kate, I was sitting in Paksong on the Bolaven plateau when I found your blog post on it. I just finished doing 4 nights and 5 days cruising around. Probably the best experience I’ll have Laos! Tad Lo has definitely blown up a little bit in the past 4 years, but the others villages are still reasonably untouched. Would love if you checked out my food/travel blog,

  7. Hey Kate! After seeing this post I was inspired to do the Bolaven plateau loop on my own (and I also wild camped solo while I was there too). I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, and I just wanted to say thank you!

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